An exciting article by Peter M. Gardner about attitudes of respect—and actions of disrespect—in two different Paliyan communities has just been added to the Archive in this website. Gardner explores several themes in his 2000 journal article, including a comparison of the actual incidents of conflict and violence between the two communities.
The Paliyans of one community have been settled agriculturalists for 150 years, and have had a lot of time to be exposed to the more violent ways of their Tamil neighbors. The other community is more recently settled, and the people are oriented to a forest-based economy. Gardner examines attitudes toward violence and nonviolence in the two villages and he discusses the actual acts of disrespect and conflict that he observed.
He begins the article by reviewing fifteen different factors found in the literature of anthropology that relate to conflicts among foraging societies. Gardner proposes an “individual autonomy syndrome” for societies in which authority structures are not really necessary. He suggests that an appropriate model for an authority structure in a Paliyan community would be a segmented worm rather than a pyramid—no one is above anyone else. In fact, anything that interferes with the autonomy of other Paliyans is considered disrespectful. Behavior that indicates subordination may impinge on the autonomy of others just as much as behavior that shows superiority.
The Paliyans deny that they, as individuals, have any ability that others are lacking. They carry this idea to an extreme: they even have trouble admitting the possibility of individual differences or of individuals being able to achieve more than others. A belief in absolute equality is apparently a corollary to their sense of mutual respect.
Gardner wraps up a fascinating discussion of the peacefulness in this society by considering specific incidents of disrespect in both the forest-based and the agricultural communities. Jealous spouses accuse one another, angry mothers swat at their children, a young man steals some things and flees the community for a couple weeks, someone hurts the tender feelings of another with a slight jest—the people handle these conflicts with a minimum of violence.
While the long-settled agricultural community experienced somewhat more severe instances of aggressive behavior than the forest Paliyans, the incidents of disrespectful acts by the agriculturalists were nonetheless quite mild. The few blows exchanged in the agricultural village were quite light. But even those few outbursts of violence were shocking to the Paliyans, despite the fact that no one was bruised or injured. Neither Paliyan community, in fact, experiences violence because of sexual jealousy. The agricultural Paliyans may not be as carefully controlled as the forest group, but by any reasonable standard they could not be considered violent. Slightly less peaceful, perhaps.
Gardner found that the forest Paliyans resort to separation to restore the peace more frequently than the agriculturalists. And both groups seem to be affected by violence displayed by Tamils in their midst. A violent Tamil teacher who repeatedly kicked and cursed a dog in the forest village was imitated by the Paliyan school children the rest of the day.
Multiple factors do help protect the Paliyans from increasing levels of violence when they settle into permanent villages. Their firm belief in respect, their habit of self-restraint, their penchant for using diplomacy and wit to diffuse tense situations, their practice of retreating from conflict, and their belief in avoiding the divisiveness of prestige all may help prevent conflicts from escalating.
The author suggests there may be a possibility of change among the settled Paliyans, especially in the agricultural village, since their children sometimes see the very strong Paliyan values of respectful harmony being violated. Children may begin to follow the examples of disrespectful behavior, of acting out violence, instead of the respectful principles of their culture. But even though there is evidence in the agricultural village that traditional values are weakening, the beliefs and practices that help keep the Paliyan communities peaceful are still mostly operational.